Jon Stewart's Iranian interrogation drama is dignified and vital film-making

Early one morning in 2009, Newsweek journalist Maziar Bahari was dragged by Iranian police from his mother’s home in Tehran, blindfolded and locked in solitary confinement. He would only walk free after 118 days of interrogation and torture.

The Iranian authorities accused Bahari of being an American spy. His crime was reporting to the world the protests and violent clashes that followed the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a president the citizens of Iran could no longer tolerate.

Based on Bahari’s bestselling memoir, this is a dignified and vital first film from American satirist Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show and a vociferous campaigner for the journalist’s release. Prior to his arrest, Bahari had in fact appeared in a sketch on The Daily Show that joked about him being a spy. This footage was later cited as evidence by the Iranian authorities. 

Bahari’s nightmare behind bars is depicted with unapologetic scenes of brutal torture, but Stewart is subtle and assured enough to herald the triumph of hope over despair without ever lapsing into heavy-handed sentimentality. 

Most importantly, he is wise enough to realise that Bahari’s journey is not the real story here, that his appalling suffering must be used to highlight the plight of the Iranian people – or, indeed, the plight of any nation crushed under oppressive rule.

For all the earnestness, however, this is not po-faced cinema. It is cinema that matters. Some of the encounters between Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal) and his ignorant torturer, known only as Rosewater (Kim Bodnia), are deliberately comic, which allows Stewart to show us that humanity flickers within even the darkest souls. As Bahari repeats to himself in his cell, they are “more alone and afraid than I”. 

Time and again, light penetrates the shadows. When a new prisoner enters Bahari’s cell at the film’s conclusion, the first thing he sees is Bahari’s message scratched in biro onto the peeling wall: “You are not alone.”

The film’s only weakness is its inability to convincingly convey the sanity-testing tedium of months spent in solitary confinement. Time jumps forward from day 18 to day 52 and we detect no real change in Bahari’s demeanour or outlook.

No matter; the most inspiring moment comes, not inside Bahari’s cell, or when he is reunited with his family, but early on when we see the Iranian people drawn to the polling stations in 2009 on a wave of optimism and a belief in the power of ordinary folk to shape the future. This remarkable film is a tribute to the bravery of foreign correspondents and a love letter to democracy.